Next week, Cambodian factory workers plan to hold a “people's tribunal” presided over by an international panel of judges who will hear testimony about adverse working conditions and low pay.
While representatives from multinational clothing brands Puma and Adidas plan to attend the hearing, H&M said it won't attend, choosing instead to supply information about what it was doing to address worker concerns, the Guardian newspaper reported.
Jeroen Merk with the Clean Clothes Campaign advocacy group told the newspaper it was "disappointing" that H&M, as well as Gap, wouldn't attend the panel.
The hearing is being organized by the Asian Floor Wage Alliance advocacy group, which argues that conditions in Cambodian clothing factories violate basic human rights and that the minimum wage of $61 per month is too low.
While refusing to send a representative to the hearing, H&M said it welcomes initiatives that highlight issues related to workers' rights.
“We work actively to strengthen the rights of textile workers,” H&M's head of sustainability, Helena Helmersson, told the TT news agency.
“Our code of conduct requires that we pay at least the legal minimum wage. But the same factories that H&M purchases products from also sew for other large chains. There are often misunderstandings about how much control we have over wages.”
Helmersson pointed out that it's hard for clothing companies to determine what an appropriate minimum wage ought to be in a given country and that H&M participates in the Fair Wage Network, which tracks wages paid in the textile industry.
At the hearing, hundreds of workers are expected to testify about a series of mass faintings that occurred in August at factories that supply clothes to H&M and other global brands.
According to Helmersson, the Swedish clothing retailer has hired consultants to examine what may have caused the incident, in which hundreds of workers suddenly lost consciousness.
She said that one explanation may be that the workers lacked ways to air their complaints or that they were working too much overtime.
“Overtime is a general problem in the industry. It's a challenge both for us and for other buyers in these countries,” Helmersson told TT.
The Cambodian textile industry employs around 300,000 workers and grew by 28 percent last year. Most of the factories are owned by Chinese or Taiwanese companies.
The workers are mainly low paid women and the unsatisfactory working conditions have led to a slew of strikes and protests in the last few years.